Archives » November 7th, 2003

November 7, 2003

Buh-bye Red Hat

Red Hat Linux is no more. It was probably the most popular and well-known distribution of Linux, but Red Hat this week announced that they were pulling all support for existing versions of Red Hat Linux, and weren’t going to be coming out with any new versions. All evidence of Red Hat 9 has disappeared from the company’s web site. The product line is basically dead. Red Hat will move on to focus solely on its for-profit Enterprise Linux software packages, and it’s throwing a bone to the rest of us with something called the Fedora Project. Red Hat’s founder has also said that Linux isn’t ready for the desktop. “Choose Windows instead.”

Well, isn’t this a little shock? Maybe some people out there saw it coming, but for someone like me who only casually follows Linux it comes out of nowhere. It also can make for some misleading headlines, like this one: Red Hat Cans Linux Distribution. When I first saw that I thought they were getting out of the Linux business entirely. It took a bit more digging to find out they were getting out of the desktop Linux business, and sticking to the products that were actually making them money. And then it took even more digging to find out what the Fedora project was all about, and see that they’re not dropping Linux at all. Fedora is basically replacing Red Hat Linux as the desktop system for home users and hobbyists. The difference is that Fedora will have a large amount of community involvement, where Red Hat Linux was mostly an in-house affair. Some of the resources that used to go to Red Hat Linux will be moved to Fedora, but it looks like Red Hat is pulling back a lot of its involvement so they can become more profitable. So they’ll no longer be selling boxed versions like they used to, and they’ll no longer be providing any support, free or paid. Only the Enterprise products will get any kind of support. Overall, it’s a boost to Red Hat’s bottom line. But what is it for the rest of us?

What this basically does is take one distribution out of the game and bring in a new one. And it’s too early to predict the effects of that. I think that in the short term it might be negative for Linux. Red Hat is one of, if not the biggest name in Linux right now. And for them to suddenly drop their free product? This move can conceivably give a lot of ammunition to Linux detractors. “Did you hear Red Hat is giving up on Linux?” “Even Red Hat says you should use Windows!” And given how long it took me to figure out that Red Hat Linux wasn’t really going away, but was just morphing into Fedora, I think that part of the story might get lost along the way. Especially if someone is trying to spin the story to discredit Linux.

Plus Red Hat was one of the few distributions you could buy in a store, so that made Linux seem more like a legitimate consumer product. You could walk into Best Buy, pick up a Red Hat Linux box, pay for it at the register, fill out your registration card, and get your year or whatever of telephone support. Just like any other software package. And for a price that was much less than Windows. That right there seemed to make Linux more credible somehow. It’s not just for geeks working in their garage with a fat Internet pipe and fifteen workstations, Linux is for everyone! Here’s the box and the CD and the inch-think manual to prove it! Red Hat now is backpedaling on that, saying, “No, silly, Linux really is only for geeks after all. Try again in a couple of years.” And while that’s a sentiment I kind of agree with—I’d never put Linux on my mother-in-law’s computer, nor give it to anyone here at work quite yet—it’s still bad PR for Linux at a time when the movement can ill afford it.

I’m also a little puzzled about why this isn’t bigger news. Sure, it was covered on Slashdot, in The Register, on eWeek and ZDNet. But the blogosphere has been quiet about it. Or at least the blogs I read. Maybe they don’t care about Linux, so they don’t talk about it. But you can’t say that about Doc Searls. As the editor of Linux Journal, he’s usually pretty good at keeping up with the big stories. But he hasn’t peeped a word about it, that I’ve seen, even though he was all over the Novell-SuSE deal. So why isn’t this making a bigger splash? Is Red Hat already irrelevant? Is it seen as the AOL of the Linux community, so nobody really cares what it does?

Anyway. I’m downloading the new release of Fedora right now, but my internet connection at work isn’t the zippiest so that might take all weekend. Only then will I be able to tell whether this is just Red Hat 10 in disguise, or whether it’s really some new, exciting project. In many ways Fedora is getting a little initial boost from its association with Red Hat. But in a lot of other ways, it’s now just another little fish in the big pond, having to start from scratch and once again work its way up. Red Hat Linux is back to square one. Can it get lucky twice?

Update: Doc Searls wrote to point out that he did mention the Red Hat news, in this SuitWatch piece (about 3/4 of the way down). I pointed to that page, but I didn’t read it all the way until after I wrote this. His take basically seems to be that it doesn’t matter, because with Linux, “vendors” are irrelevant.